BRUCE GAIN

Renault's Zoe electric car could be a winner

Bruce Gain is France correspondent for Automotive News Europe.Bruce Gain is France correspondent for Automotive News Europe.
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Renault's big bet on the Zoe, the small hatchback that will be the volume seller among the company's four-model electric car lineup, could pay off. But in order for it to do so, Renault must prove that it can deliver on its promise that it can offer an affordable and reliable electric car that will save drivers money.

Renault believes it should not be difficult to convince a large segment of European consumers that EVs can make much more sense price-wise and environmentally compared with combustion-engine cars.

The French automaker will market the Zoe as an alternative to the upcoming Clio, which Renault will launch at about the same time as the Zoe in 2012.

The Zoe will retail in France for about 15,000 euros after French government rebates, which will be the same price as the diesel version of the Clio. Comparatively, the Nissan Leaf retails for about 31,000 euros in France after the rebate.

Renault is targeting mainstream buyers, which is reflected in the Zoe's conservative rather than futuristic design. Renault hopes that fuel-cost savings will represent Zoe's main selling point for drivers who desire the same drivability and size that the Clio offers but want to save a lot of money. The Zoe has a range of about 160km on a full charge that costs about 2 euros. It can easily cost five times more in diesel fuel to drive the equivalent distance in a Clio.

When I drove a concept version of the Zoe, the steering wheel felt very stiff and the seats were hard. It felt more like driving a riding lawnmower than a street car. However, Renault says the production version of the concept I drove will drive as smoothly as any production-model Clio when it launches.

Renault plans annual sales of 150,000 units for the Zoe, a volume Chief Operating Officer Patrick Pelata says could be doubled quickly if needed.

A negative is that you can't take the car on vacation. Renault says it will make cars available for weekend or vacation trips, but I wonder how that will go given the not-so-great aftersale services among carmakers in France.

Customers will also be wary of Renault's less-than-stellar reputation for reliability. EVs in general should require less maintenance, but that can't compensate for faulty builds and defective components. Many previous Renault owners have been burned badly and will hesitate to take a risk on something so new that Renault is offering.

According to Warranty Direct, a UK-based consumer warranty company, the Renault Espace ranks third from last in the reliability rankings of all cars in Europe and is the only mainstream model to be in the bottom five. There is a saying in France that goes, "If you drive with a Renault, then you come back on a bike."

Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn is betting big that European buyers will like the Zoe.

Still, I am convinced that the Zoe could offer a lot for mainstream buyers if they do not drive more than 150km a day. Maintenance costs will likely be lower, providing even more cost savings. For a retail price of 15,000 euros new with the government rebates, you can potentially save a lot of money, unless repair costs add up after the car is no longer under warranty. However, Renault has an opportunity to prove that it can match the potential cost savings with a reliable build.

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